By: Will Rosenblatt (@rozenwill)
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The New Year’s Six bid for the Group of Five can be a bit complicated. Some teams dream of it, they would relish the opportunity. There are a select few programs that are tired of just competing for a bowl bid, and would like a chance to do something more. Nonetheless, barring something crazy, it remains the biggest prize there is to any Group of Five team. Today, we take a deep dive into what teams pose a threat to Cincinnati’s throne atop the Group of Five and what factors could propel them to national relevance or lead to a disappointing season.
What they have cooking in Louisiana is no secret now. Billy Napier’s name has come up in coaching searches a lot these last couple of years and given what his roster will look like this fall, we can expect to hear about him again.
Louisiana finished 10-1 last year, the only loss coming to Coastal Carolina. When you watch them play, they look like one of the most talented teams in the Sun Belt. It showed when they opened their season with a three score win over Iowa State, a team that went on to win the Fiesta Bowl. The Cajuns are a well-rounded team. Levi Lewis provides them with good QB play, they can run the ball almost as well as anyone in the country, and they have the athletes up front.
Billy Napier will have most of his key guys returning this fall. Lewis is back. Their top three receivers are back, as are a couple all-conference lineman. On defense though, is where they really impress. Defensive tackle Zi’Yon Hill was one of the best defenders in the G5 last year, he’s back. Louisiana’s pass defense was borderline elite last year, and they feel really good about their defensive backfield again, specifically a loaded safety room.
There are some things that might reason for slight pause before penciling them in for a NY6 bid, or even a conference title. A lot of their wins were close last year. Six of their ten wins were by one possession, and some of these opponents weren’t exactly goliath. They relied on turnovers without a great pass rush, that’s not always a sustainable approach. They lose their top two rushers, Mitchell and Ragas, who were the backbone of the offense the last two seasons. These problems aren’t unique, and no team is perfect, but they are things Napier will have to deal with in order for Louisiana to reach new heights. Their schedule isn’t easy in the rapidly improving Sun Belt, but Napier has proven himself as a coach, and this should be one of the best teams in the G5 come fall.
I mentioned the Sun Belt was a rapidly improving conference, and we’re back here again with Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers are still in the infancy of their FBS live, but they came oh so close to nabbing that NY6 bid last year, and in some other years, probably would have. This was one of the more fun teams to watch in America last year. Jamey Chadwell’s offense, which is a nice little twist on the option, was a treat. QB Grayson McCall was the engine that made the machine go. PFF graded McCall as one of the best five QB’s in the country, and he’s back again this fall. Coastal was top ten in passing efficiency last year, scoring over 35 points a game. The Chanticleers defense ranked 19th in the country in scoring, partly due to their above average sack and interception rates.
This isn’t a terribly talented team. The average class rank from the last four years is outside the top 100. There are a few ways we can look at that. It makes what Jamey Chadwell did last year even more impressive. Maybe, he has an eye for under recruited talent. We could also say that talent matters less the G5, where the margins separating good from average are a lot smaller. That being said, it’s hard to ignore completely. In 2020, only two teams in the Sun Belt had a worse talent composite score than Coastal. They are a ways from Louisiana, and certainly a ways from Cincinatti.
Just like Napier and Louisiana, Chadwell and co bring a lot back this fall. If McCall keeps playing at an elite level, and their defense keeps finding a way to make plays, it may not matter how talented they are. Their schedule sets up really well. They should be favorites in all their out of conference games and they don’t have to play Louisiana in the regular season. Their toughest game will be a mid-week trip to App State, which won’t be easy. It’s not hard to see Coastal going undefeated in the regular season for a second straight year, they just hope for a much better bowl bid this time around.
It’s hard to talk about the best teams in the Group of Five without talking about UCF. No other team in the G5 can say they’ve won a national championship this century. It’s also hard to talk about UCF without making that joke. Anyways, the circumstances of 2020 weren’t kind to the Knights. Ten players opted out before the season and four more were dismissed in November. Despite all this, UCF was still a top 30 team by a lot of metrics. You probably know by now that former head coach Josh Heupel is now in Knoxville and the man replacing him is none other than Gus Malzahn.
Because of the coaching change and how weird 2020 was for UCF, it’s hard to know how much we can actually take away from 2020. They went 6-4, three of those losses coming by one possession. The offense, led by Dillon Gabriel, was top notch. Only six teams in the country scored more than UCF. Unfortunately, the defense couldn’t get stops. They were outside the top 80 in red zone defense and on third downs. In today’s world of college football, those might be the only two areas on defense you have to be good at.
I have always liked Malzahn. He’s won the SEC, been to a national championship, and beaten Nick Saban more than anyone else has recently. UCF is a job built for success. It’s an athletic program that has really invested in football, with a large fan base, in a state filled with talent. I have some questions about how their current offensive personnel will fit into Gus’s offense, because his playbook is not from the same planet as Josh Heupel’s. It may not matter, and Dillon Gabriel may just be good enough to run anything. If first year DC Travis Williams can get the defense up to par, this is a team that can cause Cincinnati some problems in the AAC.
Much like UCF, Boise State lost their head coach to the SEC when Bryan Harsin took the job at Auburn and will be under a new regime this fall. The new guy in town, well, that would be Andy Avalos. Avalos is a Boise man through and through. He’s one of the best linebackers to ever suit up for the Broncos and was an assistant coach there for over five years before taking the DC job at Oregon.
Boise is the closest thing the Group of 5 has to a blue blood. They have been ranked at one point or another during the season every year since 2002. Even a lot of P5 programs can’t boast that. They weren’t typical Boise last year. The Mountain West didn’t start their season until late October. Boise then dealt with an injury to their QB, Hank Bachmeier, and had a COVID pause for a few weeks in the middle of the year. They did go 5-0 in the Mountain West, but got the breaks beat off them by BYU.
They rank outside the top 100 in returning production. That’s not great for a team with a first-year coach. The schedule doesn’t set up too well for them either. They open with a trip to face UCF before Oklahoma State comes to Boise in week three. They also have to take road trips to BYU, Fresno State, and San Diego State. Games that won’t be easy by any stretch.
The good news is Hank Bachmeier is a pretty good quarterback, and if he is playing well, this offense can move. Avalos has proven himself as one of the best defensive coaches in the country and the cupboard isn’t bare. I think we are still a year away from Boise State really challenging for a New Year’s Six bid, but if they did something special this year, it wouldn’t be the craziest thing that has ever happened in college football, or even Boise for that matter.
Liberty has come out of almost nowhere to be a relevant name in college football. A lot of that can be accredited to Hugh Freeze, or really, all of it. Everything else aside, Hugh Freeze can coach football. Liberty was 39th in SP+ last year, had a top 20 scoring offense, and a top 30 scoring defense. Malik Willis looked like one of the best players in college football in the country last fall and has even garnered some hype as a first round pick next year.
Along with Willis, who was their leading rusher in 2020, the Flames return a boat load of talent, including top wide receivers DJ Stubbs, Kevin Shaa, and Demario Douglas. They also bring back their second leading rusher, running back Joshua Mack. There are a total of 16 players who have made good use of the extra year of eligibility to return for their “super senior” season. That experience, combined with the two best recruiting classes Liberty has ever had, is good news for a team with national aspirations.
The first couple months of the season set up really well for them. I’d pick them to win their first nine games. Of course, the problem then becomes if the schedule is strong enough to impress the committee if it comes down to Liberty vs Cincinatti, or any of the other teams I have mentioned. The good news is the final few weeks give them some opportunities to impress. They take a road trip to Ole Miss, before finishing the season with two games at home vs Louisiana and Army. This could be an impressive team, with a really fun offense, and is absolutely a contender to appear in a New Year’s Six bowl.
This is a big year for App State. This will be Shawn Clark’s 2nd year as head coach, and we will be two years removed from the Scott Satterfield/Eli Drinkwitz days. It’s a good thing when bigger schools want to hire your head coach. It means you had success, more than a reasonable person thought possible. This has been the case at App State for some time now. It’s not hard to go from coach to coach to coach and sustain success. Often, that first transition isn’t a problem. There wasn’t a drop off when they went from Satterfield to Drinkwitz. We have now gone from Drinkwitz to Clark, and we haven’t seen a decline yet, but this year may tell us a lot, and I’m optimistic.
According to 247 Sports, the Mountaineers had the best talent composite score in the Sun Belt last fall. Earlier this year, they signed a top 80 class, after signing a top 100 class in 2020. The first time they have signed back-to-back top 100 classes in school history. The offense will be a huge question mark for App this fall. Zac Thomas, multi year starter at QB, has moved on. As has OC, Tony Peterson. Clark did a fine job hitting the transfer market to land former Clemson QB Chase Brice. Frank Ponce, who worked with Satterfield at App State and followed him to Louisville returns to Boone to helm the offense. App State likes to keep it in the family with big hires and it’s worked for them so far, I expect that to be the case with Ponce.
I have no questions about the defense. The Mountaineers boated one of the best defenses in the G5 last year, if not the FBS. Two-time all-conference pass rusher Demetrius Taylor is back for his fifth year. They return a total of five players who had at least 15 pressures last year and a secondary filled with upperclassmen. This is the best G5 program yet to appear in a NY6 bowl. It’s a program and fanbase that deserves that opportunity. Shawn Clark and his crew will have their fair share of opportunities to earn it this year, especially with a road trip to Miami to take on what’s supposed to be a pretty good Hurricanes team. In October, they get Louisiana and Coastal in back-to-back weeks. We can expect another solid product out of Boone this fall.
Not every team in the Group of 5 will be able to compete for that elusive New Year’s Six bid, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some more programs that deserve recognition. Plus, you never know, sometimes these teams come out of nowhere. These are just some that I think are worth keeping an eye on for one reason or another this fall.
- Memphis: The Tigers got to experience the Cotton Bowl in 2019, Mike Norvell’s final year with the program, where they lost to Penn State. I don’t think there’s much reason to believe they could do it again in 2021, especially with how tough the AAC is, but their recent history garners them some thought.
- BYU: This is a program that took college football by storm last year as Zach Wilson propelled himself to the second overall pick. They lose more than any other team in America. A regression similar to the one LSU saw after their magical year is possible here, but I like their coaching staff and think they can put together a formidable product.
- Tulsa: Defense. Defense. Defense. That’s why I’m putting the Golden Hurricanes here. I’m a huge fan of their DC Joseph Gillespie. With Gillespie calling the defense, Tulsa will be a tough out for some of the best teams in the AAC.
- Army: The limitations that come with being a service school, as well as Army’s tough schedules, will most likely prevent them from ever making the New Year’s Six. But Jeff Monken has done a great job here and has made Army a relatively good G5 program on a yearly basis.
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